Ventforet Kofu: From Japan’s Second Tier to the AFC Champions League

Japan can brag about an immense and millennial culture, and that includes a plethoric mythology, with several gods trying to exert influence over the peasants. The champion of them, Amaterasu, is a goddess who sits above Mount Fuji, the highest point of this archipelago. Amaterasu is the goddess of the Sun, the main deity in Shintoism and the stem from the royal Japanese family. Her softhearted and merciful personality makes justice to her role: the supreme divinity.


At the skirts of Mount Fuji we have a small city called Kofu, two hours away from the capital Tokyo in a single train trip. With a population that falls short of 200.000 inhabitants, you can find the fields where Takeda Shingen’s almighty cavalry fought for a unified country, the gorgeous Shosenkyo Gorge and the finest quality of sake. Kofu is the birthplace of Nakata Hidetoshi, the man who made a breakthrough for Japan in the world football map due to his runs in Serie A and Premier League. Finally, this is the landscape for our story, the local club Ventforet Kofu.


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Japanese clubs have interesting names related to the story and culture of each city, with portmanteaux of foreign words, most from English, German, Italian and Portuguese. Our main character borrows the name from the French words: vent, “wind”, and “forêt”, “forest”. This alludes to the leitmotiv of Takeda Shingen for a swift battle: fūrinkazan (風林火山), which in turn comes from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War: “as swift as wind, as gentle as forest, as fierce as fire, as unshakable as mountain.” 


Ventforet Kofu’s last season in the top flight was 2017 and they barely escaped from relegation to J3 League in 2022. Yet thanks to a sensational win of the Emperor Cup, last year they claimed a spot in the AFC Champions League, topping their group and earning a chance to fight for the most prestigious Asian tournament for clubs.


The system to qualify for the top continental tournaments makes the presence of clubs outside the top flight very unlikely. It may happen in the secondary cups, such as the Europa League (remember Wigan Athletic, Alania Vladikavkaz and Alemania Aachen), yet for the different Champions League presentations the odds are less than 0.1%. Even if the Argentine side Patronato made it to Libertadores, Ventforet Kofu’s run is rather an exception. How come a second-tier is defying all odds and the status quo of Asian football? 


Unlike other confederations, the association leagues ranking tells you not only how many spots you have for Asian competitions, but which cup you are eligible for. In this case, Japan can provide all four clubs to the AFC Champions League: one for the playoff (3rd place in J-League), and three for the group stage, allocated for the top two clubs in the league plus the winner of the Emperor Cup.


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The Emperor Cup is also open for all clubs, no matter the precedence: the first three levels of professional football, the winners from every prefecture, and even teams from high school. It is being held since its inception, back in 1921.  Just like the FA Cup, the higher a club is located in the pyramid, the more byes they receive. In this case, as Ventforet Kofu is in the J2-League, they had to start from the second proper round, taking on Pacific International University from Okayama and thrashing them 5-1. Even the most optimistic fans were not prepared at all for the epic journey they would walk.


In the Round of 32, Ventforet Kofu had to fly to Sapporo to face Hokkaido Consadore, making a hard-fought comeback 2-1 win. Again in an away fixture for the Round of 16, Ventforet Kofu thrashed Sagan Tosu 3-1. Now for the qualifiers, their rivals were Avispa Fukuoka, at that point sailing in fourth place. The score was an exhibit of how the game was: a bare 2-1 win at extra time. 


Like every FA Cup, the clubs from the lower divisions receive the attention as the curiosity for someone a priori weak defeating odds compels fans to follow closely the run. In the semifinals, the only side to be out of the J1-League had to play against Kashima Antlers, one of the most successful clubs in Japan. Ventforet Kofu was theoretically the local, yet due to the capacity of their stadium, they had to go to Kashima. With an extraordinary tactical order, Ventforet upset everyone with a single goal… they were in the final.


Who was between them and the Emperor Cup? Sanfrecce Hiroshima, the eternal loser. This shining club had a draught since 1969, losing eight finals on the run. What else could we say? No other outsider had been able to sneak into the final since 1980 (Tanabe Pharmaceuticals).


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It was a tough match as expected, Ventforet scored first and it was a minute away from a win in regular time, however, Sanfrecce got an equalizer. In the end, Ventforet scored more penalties in the series, producing the biggest upset ever in the Emperor Cup and qualifying to the AFC Champions League at the same time. Not bad for a club outcast since 2017.


What fate did the draw tell for Ventforet Kofu? A group where everything could be possible – G, with the Thai champions Buriram United, the Chinese Super League third place Zhejiang, and the Australian City Football Group franchise, Melbourne City. In addition, their JIT Recycle Ink Stadium fell short of the AFC guidelines, so Ventforet Kofu would not be able to play in Kofu, but in the Tokyo National Stadium, a world-class scenario to keep on dreaming.


Throughout six matchdays, Ventforet Kofu earnt respect from the Japanese common fans and the East Asian audience… for example holding braces to keep short Melbourne City in Australia with a 0-0. It was an impressive participation, having the upper hand in the last match, sitting on the top of the group and with fair chances to progress into the last 16. For it to become reality, they had to survive in Thailand to play against an old salt like Buriram United. And they did: with a massive 3-2 away win, Ventforet Kofu became the first non-top-flight team ever to get out of the group stage.


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The draw posed yet another challenge: their rival is Ulsan Hyundai, the giant Korean side that has already become Asian Champion twice. Reality could say something else, yet Ventforet Kofu has the prerogative to never stop believing. They have to keep in mind that they had already knocked out top-flight clubs on their way to the implausible Emperor Cup, they also climbed a mixed group with champions and formidable rivals. They have been proving everyone wrong… Ulsan can be the next to bite the dust.


Ventforet Kofu can comfortably state good mentors: Amaterasu gives the blessings all the way from Mount Fuji, Nakata Hidetoshi transfers some bravery he needed to conquer Italy and England, and  Takeda Shingen gives out the dream of joining all coins of Japan to rule over Asia as swift as wind, as gentle as forest, as fierce as fire, as unshakable as mountain.


By: Sebastian Alarcon / @AlarSebas

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Masashi Hara / Getty Images